CLEVELAND, Ohio – Mary Ellen Withrow did not seek a career in politics.
The Marion County native was encouraged by teachers in the Elgin Local School District to run for the school board. Once elected, Withrow was the only woman on the board. She went on to serve as Marion Country Treasurer, Ohio’s state treasurer and as the Treasurer of the United States during the Clinton administration.
Withrow is the only person to have held the post of treasurer at all three levels of government – local, state, and national.
She is one of eight women profiled in the new documentary “Trailblazing Women in Ohio Politics.” The film will premiere at 1 p.m., Saturday, March 11, at the Western Reserve Historical Society as part of its celebration for National Women’s History Month.
Admission and parking for the film will be free.
The documentary weaves together the stories of women who threw their hats in the ring when it wasn’t fashionable, including Jo Ann Davidson, the first woman speaker of the Ohio House; Helen Rankin, the first African American woman in the Ohio General Assembly; and Nancy Hollister, the first woman to serve as mayor of Marietta, who later became the first woman Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, and the only woman to serve as it’s Governor.
“In the late 1960s and 1970s, women were being elected to office all across the country, yes, but not in significant numbers,” said Dr. Melissa Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, and the executive producer of the film. “It marks a time in women’s history when women were really beginning to be out there and experiencing a lot of pushback for their candidacies.”
While Ohio has long been considered a battleground state and at the forefront of national elections, Miller said a Rutgers University study places the state “somewhere in the middle of the heap when it comes to electing women to office, and yet, we were the first state to elect an African American woman to a state office.”
“It’s really interesting to hear, in their own words, that ‘no one thought I could win,’ or ‘nobody gave me a chance.’ They were treated like novelties on the campaign trail.”
Miller said the thing she found most compelling about the stories of these women is that they all took very different paths to obtain their office.
Rankin, the first African American woman to serve in the Ohio legislature was appointed in 1978 to fill the seat of her late husband, James W. Rankin. She then sought election to that seat later that year and went on to serve eight elected terms in the Ohio House.
“As a young woman, she never sought a career in politics. There was controversy surrounding the appointment, as well as over her decision to run for the seat outright,” said Miller. “There were men in the community who believed they were more qualified than she, and yet she never lost an election.”
For those early women on the campaign trail, they found they had to employ different strategies to appeal to voters.
“Some, like Withrow, ran showcasing that she was the only woman on the ticket. At the time, that was a really brave thing to do in the 1960s and 70s,” Miller said. “Today, no one even bats an eye when a woman declares her candidacy for the office of the President of the United States, yet these women were considered an oddity.”
Even garnering media attention was a challenge for Ohio’s trailblazers.
“Historically, women actually had a hard time getting the media to even pay attention to them, and when they did, they wrote about what they were wearing and whether or not they had children, neither of which was mentioned in coverage of their male counterparts,” Miller said.
In Winslow’s case, the local newspaper would refer to her only as “Mrs. Norman Winslow” in articles, despite the fact that she was on the ballot as Mary Ellen Winslow.
“And these were not experiences being aimed at one party or the other, they were shared experiences by women on both sides of the aisle,” Miller said.
The one-hour documentary is a collaboration between Bowling Green State University and PBS affiliate WBGU. The film will air on PBS stations around the state later this month.
In addition, full interviews are being transcribed and archived for the use of educators around the state and should be available by May on the film’s website.
“The most gratifying thing to me is that each of these women have a compelling story to tell, and yet, they are not household names. They are women who served quietly and made great strides. I am so happy to bring their stories to light.